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Say What?: Getting Students to Ask Questions

This article appeared in similar form in The Language Teacher, volume 18, number 7, July 1994, published by the Japan Association for Language Teaching. Copyright @ Randall S. Davis.


Since I started emphasizing these information-gathering techniques in the classroom, I no longer feel I am talking into the void. The classroom experience has become two-sided. Obviously, if students don't naturally ask questions in their native language, they might not perform differently in another language. However, for most students, learning to ask more effective questions gives them another way of communicating; it's a lot better than pretending to understand, ignoring the problem, and being left in the dark


"Tomorrow we will have a test on chapters three and four in the book. This test will cover grammar, vocabulary and key expressions." Silence. "Okay, everyone understand?" Silence . . . plus some distant-looking faces. "Teacher . . . uh . . . excuse me . . . . What?" Then, after several minutes of backing up, explaining again and again, and trying to guess exactly what part of the lesson wasn't understood, the teacher can't figure out where the conversation broke down. After further discussion, however, it turns out that the only words students didn't grasp were "key expressions," but why didn't they just say so? This highlights the difficulty language students have in requesting information when they are at a loss.

Teachers often focus on questions like Excuse me. I don't understand or Could you repeat that? during the initial few classes and ask students to repeat them. However, more often than not, the students are left to their own devices to use them correctly from then on. In other words, teachers sometimes start students off on the wrong foot by not teaching how to ask comprehension, clarification, and confirmation questions, and students stay on the wrong foot for the rest of the year. Rather, the teacher should help students internalize these strategies by providing controlled activities where practice can take place. As students gain confidence in using them, they become more independent language learners, and, as Maybin and Bergschneider (1992, p. 159) put it, "they will be better prepared to creatively engage in and exploit to full advantage every exchange in the target language (italics, the authors')."

Preparing Students from the Start

From the start, teachers should acquaint students with the cultural expectations that go along with asking questions. As pointed out by Reinelt (1987) and Nozaki (1993), culture plays a role in molding the way students ask questions. They suggest that teacher-directed questions are problematic for some Japanese students whose former English language environment did not include these skills. While Western teachers consider quick response time and independently-arrived-at answers important factors in answering questions, Japanese students have been raised in a system where correctness and cooperation between students in answering questions is the rule. Therefore, teachers would go a long way in preparing students if they explained the different expectations Western instructors bring with them to the classroom. This does not mean students will change their behavior overnight, but it will make them aware of the potential problems that may arise.

In addition to pointing out to students the different criteria for giving answers between cultures, teachers should help students become aware of the impression student behavior has on the native speaker of English. For example, when English speakers are not asked questions and no feedback is provided, some people may assume that the listener understands what is being said or that the other person isn't listening. In addition, English speakers may become uncomfortable and often try to fill the silence by speaking faster with fewer pauses and not let the other person step in and interact. In the end, the burden is often left to the speaker to figure out exactly what was not understood. Once students understand the problems associated with not asking questions, teachers can build upon this knowledge by providing more effective ways of getting information.

Yet, while cultural background does play a role in determining how students respond in class, we should be careful not to label everyone as shy or unmotivated, and make the assumption that this apparent unwillingness to jump into the language arena and start talking is some part of the inherent cultural baggage of being Japanese. In part, it is simply that students in general, whether they are studying Japanese, English, or Hebrew, have natural inhibitions at the beginning of any class. In other words, students may be hesitant to participate because they don't know what to say when they don't understand. With these concerns in mind, I have included a list of useful techniques to encourage students to become more actively involved in the classroom.

1. Basic Survival Expressions

The most common dialogue I hear in my classes between students has to do with the spelling or definition of words, so I have made it a point to replicate this same conversation in English. Therefore, teachers should make it a point to give students a list of useful expressions they can make use of immediately from day one (e.g., Excuse me. I don't underxtand, Could you repeat that please?, Did you say ________?, What does _________ mean?, etc.). Have the questions posted at the front of the room on the blackboard for easy reference in an order of progression from stopping the flow of the conversation when you don't understand, to checking understanding, to ultimately reconfirming the meaning of the utterance.

2. Using Focused Repetition

Often, when students say they don't understand, I'm never quite sure if they haven't understood anything during the last twenty minutes or one isolated word I said five seconds ago. Thus, once students have memorized these basic survival phrases, the teacher should guide students to more effective strategies including focused repetition. Levine, Baxter and McNulty (1987) compared focused repetition to using a camera. Students "focus" on the word or part of the sentence they didn't understand so that the needed part becomes clearer. With this kind of information-gathering technique, students can tell the speaker exactly what they want to hear. In the following example, the student didn't understand the word drawer, so he/she uses a question word in its place, indicating to the speaker the word that was missed.

Teacher: Put the book in the second drawer.

Student: Put the book in the second what?

Teacher: In the second drawer.

Also, students can repeat what they understood and then draw out the final word with a look of confusion. Then, the listener can then reconfirm the answer by changing it into a tag question as seen in the example below:

Caller: My number is 378-3019.

Secretary: That's 378-30 . . . (trailing off)

Caller: 3019.

Secretary: Okay. That's 3019 (stressed), right?

Caller: Right.

Secretary: I got it. Thank you for calling.

For pair practice, teachers can prepare a list of twenty sentences similar to the ones below based on topics studied in class. One student reads the sentence. When the student comes to the part of the sentence marked with question marks (???), the student should muffle the word in parentheses. The other student should then use the skills of focused repetition to figure out the part of the sentence that is unclear.

Examples: Student A: The bank is on the ??? of the street. (right side)

Student B: The bank is where? (or) The bank is on the . . . (trailing off)

Student A: Right side of the street.

Student A: Let's meet at (???) at the (???) Park. (1:40/Central)

Student B: Let's meet when? (or/and) where?

Student A: At 1:40./ at Central Park.

In addition to pair practice, teachers can make use of any classroom listening tape to teach focused repetition. With the written dialogue along side, I play a portion of the tape and fad the sound out at crucial points where important information is given (e.g., phone numbers, addresses, dates, etc.). Students then try to repeat back the part they did not understand using focused repetition. I then replay the tape or, for ease of administration, read the part they missed from the transcript. This also allows them to confirm what they heard.

3. Teacher Modeling

After explaining these skills, teachers must demonstrate how these techniques are used to synchronize the flow of conversation between two people. The best method to accomplish this is by videotaping two speakers giving feedback in a short, structured dialogue, and then showing this interaction to the class. When making the video, teachers should pay special attention to the use of facial expressions when asking for additional information. These expressions also give clues to where the conversation broke down. Give the students a copy of the conversation so they can refer back to these phrases later. Look at the example below:

A: Excuse me. Could you tell me how to get to City Bank ?

B: How to get to City Bank?

A: Yeah.

B: Okay. Go down this street four blocks.

A: Four blocks. Okay.

B: Then, turn right at River Street?

A: Turn right at . . . (trailing off)

B: River Street.

A: River Street. Okay.

B: Next, keep going straight until the pedestrian bridge.

A: Until the what?

B: Until the pedestrian bridge.

A: What's that?

B: It's a bridge people use to cross over the street.

A: I got it.

Teachers can carry this practice one step further by transforming this dialogue into a spot dictation deleting certain words or phrases and having students fill in the missing information. Afterwards, students in pairs can role-play the entire conversation together.

Another technique as part of this modeling, I often pretend I am a new Japanese student and ask another foreign instructor to act as the teacher for a few minutes. During that time, I imitate what students do when the "teacher" asks me questions (look at the book, ask other students questions, pretend to understand, etc.). They soon laugh, and we talk about their own feelings in the class.

4. Short Dictation

Gorsuch (1992) suggests that teachers have the students listen to a line of text from any classroom tape and then require them to write a transcription of it. If students don't ask any clarification questions, the teacher should continue on with the tape. As students quickly find themselves falling behind, they will be forced to ask the teacher for help. The dictation method can also be used to show students that questions can be used to request information at any point in a sentence. For example, if students don't catch the first three words of the sentence, "Learning a foreign language is fun," students can substitute the word "something" or the interrogative "what" in its place ("What is fun?") instead of asking the speaker to repeat the entire sentence again.

5. Creating Incentives

There are a number of ways to motivate students to ask questions. Naturally, we hope students possess an inherent desire to know what is going on around them. Obviously, if we create opportunities for asking question by modifying our rate of speaking creating salient boundaries between words and sentences, students will find they understand more and can see that the teacher is making a conscientious effort to include them in the conversation.

However, when students aren't so willing to participate, teachers may have to resort to other methods of coercion. For example, having a short quiz periodically will usually do the trick. Unfortunately, this method will not ensure that students will transfer this passive knowledge to actual use. Therefore, what teachers can do to motivate students to ask questions is to take advantage of students natural desire to accumulate things. If a student takes the initiative to ask me something, I reward him/her with a piece of chocolate. I make sure the first one I give out is big. After the "oh's" and "ah's" recede, students feel less inhibited to fire off a question knowing there is a prize waiting for them. I also create situations where students have no choice but to ask me something. Not passing out enough handouts is one example; I just sit back and wait for the students to come to me.

Another method similar to one proposed by Fujii (1993) is to make part of students' grades dependent upon class participation. Students are informed at the beginning of the semester that to receive an "A" in class, they must earn a certain number of "effort" points by asking questions or responding to ones I make. Students receive one point for each question, and they can accumulate up to three points per class. Limiting the number of points has two purposes: (a) It gives every student an opportunity to earn points and (b) it discourages students from waiting until the lass class to catch up. Students can earn points even if don't answer the question correctly. Not only does this technique encourage more participation in class, but also makes the grading system less ambiguous.

6. Administering Surveys

Obviously, our students' ultimate goal is to use these information-finding techniques beyond the walls of the classroom with foreigners in a more natural setting. As suggested by Richards (1993), administering a survey is one structured way of accomplishing this end. One model I have instituted involves in-class preparation, a field exercise, and post-work back in the classroom.

Start off by having students write a list of five questions about life in Japan, leisure activities, or any topic that has been discussed in class (e.g., How long have you lived in Japan?, What do you usually do on you day off?, etc.). Then, divide the class into pairs and have them role play the interview. Encourage each person to come up with a fictitious identify and think of unusual answers to these questions. This will make the activity more challenging and will force their partners to ask more questions. Equally important, such role playing will simulate some of the psychological pressure students will feel under authentic conditions.

After the preparation phase has been completed, direct students to popular tourist spots or train stations frequented by foreigners and administer this survey as part of an after-class activity. Have them work in pairs and stop people as they walk by. Be sure to prepare students on how to introduce themselves along with a brief explanation of why they are doing the survey (i.e., to practice English), and roughly how long it will take. Also, forewarn them that some people will not want to be interviewed. A few key phrases would be useful in these cases (e.g., Okay, I understand. Thank you anyway). Tape record the entire transaction to be used later in class. Finally, encourage students to show their appreciation by giving participants a telephone card or other small gift. Foreigners who have had a pleasant experience talking your students will probably be more inclined to help other English students if the occasion presents itself again.

In the post-work stage, students transcribe the interviews and compare their results with others in the same class. Students can also discuss which confirmation strategies were most effective and why, and then evaluate their own performance, taking note of when and how gaps in information were clarified.


As noted before, teachers need to instruct students how to interact more effectively as they listen and speak in the target language. The first step is helping students recognize any cultural barriers blocking communication and how their own behavior is interpreted by native speakers. Then, teachers must actively engage students in applying the skills of clarification as an on-going part of the class. Finally, if possible, students should have opportunities to practice these techniques under more realistic circumstances beyond the classroom. With enough practice, students eventually become independent language learners, relying less on their peers for assistance in trying to catch the meaning of every utterance.


Gorsuch, G. (1992, November 26). Teaching students to use clarification questions.The Daily Yomiuri, 9.

Fujii, T. (1993). Classroom management: Creating motivation by use of a clear grading system. The Language Teacher, 17(6), 37, 39.

Levine, D., Baxter, J., & McNulty, P. (1987). The culture puzzle. Cross-cultural communication for English as a second language. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Maybin, D., & L. Bergschneider. (1992). Control: An independent learning model. Cross Currents, 19(2), 149-159.

Nozaki, K. (1993). The Japanese student and the foreign teacher. In P. Wadden (Ed.), A handbook for teaching English at Japanese colleges and universities (pp. 27-33). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Reinelt, R. (1987). The delayed answer: Response strategies of Japanese students in foreign language classes. The Language Teacher, 11, 4-9.

Richards, Jack. (1993, October 11) .Getting the message. The Daily Yomiuri, 9.

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